Chicago Theater Review: HIS GREATNESS (Pride Films and Plays at the Pride Arts Center)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 21, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


By 1980 Tom “Tennessee” Williams was on a constant skid: His last great play, The Night of the Iguana, had premiered two decades before. Ever since, the once-supreme author of The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Summer and Smoke, Camino Real, Suddenly Last Summer, Orpheus Descending, and, above all, A Streetcar Named Desire is now mired in a haze of drugs, booze and anonymous sex.

Maudlinly mourning his lover Frank Merlo (who died accidentally in 1963), the self-medicating depressive is reduced to repeating his heartfelt revelations in forgettable fare like Clothes for a Summer Hotel (at Chicago’s Studebaker Theater) and A House Not Meant to Stand (which I called “a play not meant to open” when it reached Goodman Theater).

In 1980 Williams wrote the “turgid” and “disingenuous” A Red Devil Battery Sign. I saw it in a half-filled Colonial Theatre, the Boston audience jeering the likes of Claire Bloom and Anthony Quinn as he erupted in a mad scene that was not at all contagious. That play is the context of Daniel MacIvor’s two-act, 90-minute His Greatness.

This 2007 speculation tenderly portrays a Tennessee Williams caught in a talespin that should have been a valedictory swan song. Lyrically staged by David Zak for Pride Films & Plays at Chicago’s Pride Arts Center, this meditation on the clash between life and art delivers two very telling days and nights, assembling a famous playwright, his dogged assistant, and the 28-year-old hustler who services a writer he never heard of.

The setting is a Vancouver hotel room where a fogged-in Williams, writer-in-residence at the University of British Columbia, is “revisiting” The Red Devil Battery Sign, a play he staunchly denies was ever panned in London. No, he insists it’s new emotional territory he must conquer and claim.

In five short scenes, stretching from a Thursday afternoon through Friday night, we glimpse an American treasure and two-time Pulitzer winner who’s cursed to outlive his genius and batten on his past. Two men, a former and a current lover, compete for his consciousness as much as his respect.

As indelibly depicted by Danne W. Taylor, MacIver’s unnamed dramatist is self-abusing, occasionally incontinent, verging on senility, and never far from a bottle. But, true to Tennessee’s absolute fidelity to the human heart, this writer who put himself into every character he wrote stubbornly maintains the power of “wonder” to transform stages and audiences. He rages against accusations that his new play isn’t modern: All he’s ever tried to capture is the “moment” in a constant “now.”

Much like the title character in Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser, the author’s uncredited assistant (Andrew Kain Miller) is a much tested and trusted “damage controller.” Enduring the sweet Mississippi drawl that can turn into a shriek, this dogsbody works tirelessly to keep his “eminent” client reasonably sober and ambulatory. It’s a thankless role where loyalty can seem a liability.

Finally, always dependent on the “kindness of strangers,” the writer’s latest “gentleman caller” (Whitman Johnson) is a young sex worker and cocaine dealer from Nova Scotia. This lad who Williams calls “as shy as a switchblade” is to be paid $120 from Williams’ limited assets. After attending the premiere of Williams’ poorly received latest effort, the appreciative call boy is encouraged to entertain delusions of becoming “staff.” Williams, he thinks, will write him a conveyance—a “vehicle” … that’s the word!—though he’s never seen a show till now. This preferment incites a competition that drives the assistant to dire measures.

Always between a crossroads and a crisis, Taylor’s embattled writer is a sad study in the law of diminished returns. His “sweet bird of youth” took off long ago but MacIver’s Tennessee still craves a fortieth last chance. Pathetically, he ignores the fact that his legacy, beyond dispute, will transcend his lesser, later offerings. A cross between a nursemaid and a muse, Miller’s beleaguered assistant is rightly sick of being a shadow.

By play’s end the age difference between Johnson’s “young man,” a handsome mediocrity, and the Southern scribe is unbridgeable: This bought boy has no future while Williams has too much past. They remain patented strangers in the night.

Too specific and too honest to be merely a cautionary tale, His Greatness offers a rueful gloss on glory. Compassionate and convincing, this bittersweet portrait of an immortal three years from his death poignantly proves how far the mighty can fall. Sic transit gloria mundi.

photos by Paul Goyette

His Greatness
Pride Films and Plays
The Buena Stage at Pride Arts Center, 4147 N Broadway
Thurs-Sat at 7:30 pm (Sat, Oct. 28 at 5 only); Sun at 7
Mon, Oct. 23 at 7:30
ends on November 12, 2017 EXTENDED to November 18, 2017
for tickets, call 800.737.0984 or visit Pride Films

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